Book Review: Are We Not There Yet?

Are We Not There Yet?: Travels in Nepal, North India and Bhutan
by: Chuck Rosenthal

     In 2006 Chuck heads to Northern India and the Himalayas for four months with a group of drinking and pot smoking California college students, his wife, his daughter Jesus, and his trusty, well actually confusing, buddy C3PO, but not before a stop in Bangkok. At this point I say: What’s not to like here?

    Written with a great sense of spontaneous skepticism and unabated cynicism, as well as humorous wit, this book is a great view into India and the Himalaya from an educated westerner’s point of view. You can tell Chuck knows the religions of the region, and he doesn’t hold back in giving his humorous interpretation of them when he can. He asks the questions that many, including myself, question when in India. He also tries to answer those questions from a “common sense” point of view. He points out the nuances of the area, he tries to explain how Indian’s think, he tries to understand how they come up with that thinking. What entails is a humorous travel memoir that sets out to educate the western world reader in Indian and Himalayan culture, thinking and religion …or at least try to explain it as much as it can be in a common sense type of way. 

     For those who have been to the area, you know what I’m talking about. For those that haven’t been, Chuck does a good job in giving a truthful and honest interpretation from a western perspective. …the cows in the road that are not there, that are sitting there, but they are not there, depending on who you ask. The half-hour that turns into five hours, but is still considered a half-hour, even at the five-hour mark. The five hot water handles in a bathroom, which has no hot water, but even if it did you would first have to learn the secret combination of the five handles along with the eight other cold water ones before you could get even a drip. From the touts and sellers of Varanasi to the mountains of Bhutan, Chuck weaves a nice little tale here, keeping the students out-of-the-way most of the time, including them when a humorous experience entails. Recording the conversations, remarks and experiences of Jesus, his daughter (…and if you can’t imagine where that is going, you may not like the book) along the way and trying to understand and cooperate with C3PO throughout, all while wearing his feather filled cowboy hat.

     The book starts off right before the trip, in California, where Jesus totals her car the night before the flight. …and so it starts. From there they head to Bangkok, and what do thirteen college students do the first time they are out of the states without their parents? Drink. From Bangkok to Kolkata. Kolkata to Varanasi. Varanasi up to the Himalayas. Northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.

     The book starts off strong. Really strong. A humorous masterpiece of travel memoir literature right from the start. unfortunately the book dies down around half way through, but fortunately not enough to deter the reader from interest in the rest of the story. The second half isn’t bad or boring in any way, but relative to the first half of the book, is a little of a letdown. Still, all in all, a great humorous travel memoir, as well as informative in many areas of Himalayan culture.

Bottom Line:
…it’s a good humorous travel memoir with some great points. Very original, quite funny and entertaining, as well as an original approach and writing style. There are points in this book that are absolutely hilarious and oh so true, yet never written about:
Recommended for anyone as a humorous travel memoir.
Highly Recommended for those who have been to India or are planning to go.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John


Book Review: Buttertea at Sunrise

Buttertea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya
by: Britta Das

     I’m digging this one. One woman’s memoirs from a year spent volunteering as a physiotherapist in a remote mountain village in Eastern Bhutan. A travel memoir as well as an almost educational look into The Kingdom of Bhutan.

     For many, this book is a two-fold type of read. On one hand it encompasses the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Britta, as well as an outsiders look into the day-to-day experiences that one goes through in such a different culture. Britta does a great job weaving these experiences through and into a tale not just about herself and her work, but also of Bhutanese life itself. The book is almost one of those “nothing really happens” books, but written very well and set in the high Himalaya of a mysterious country that very little is known about, where that nothing really happens turns into a very personal memoir of a fascinating experience. Britta brings characters to life, her job into perspective, and creates a detailed picture of the town and district, Mongar, in which she works. She brings her patients vividly to life, transferring emotion from paper to reader with utmost ease. She describes the state of the healthcare system, or lack thereof, in the remote area in which she is working. She learns the religion, she tries to understand the culture. She battles fleas, shops in the bazaar, visits temples, dzongs and stupas. Britta loses workers, fights with patients and their families, falls in love, hikes the mountains and helps the people the best she can.

     On the other hand, the book reveals a lot of information on Bhutan itself, which, let’s face it, is tough to come by even in this day and age. Britta reveals a little bit at a time throughout the book. The people, culture, recent history, problems and religion of Bhutan are all revealed and absorbed into Brittas experience’s without a misstep, hiccup or pause. This is where Britta excels in my opinion. Although nothing extremely exciting happens, the book is written so well, and in such a fascinating country that so little is written about, that it keeps the reader wanting to go further into her experience and deeper into understanding Bhutan and it’s people and how they live.

     A great example of the ability of written word to create a visual picture in the mind or imagination is also present in the book. Maybe the best example I have ever seen. If you are going to read the book, and I probably shouldn’t even say it because it will probably cause the opposite effect, but don’t look at the picture on page 150. Read the book and especially the chapter and text leading up to it, and turn the page to see if the mental picture you have is at all correct . Doing this I was quite surprised at the picture. Not that the picture is good or bad, but just surprising relative to the text and how I visualized the particular subject that is pictured …I’ll let you decide, but if you do read it, let me know your thoughts.

     It’s the little things that bring the book together and make it much more as a whole than the sum of its parts. Small everyday experiences turned into a fascinating year spent struggling against the odds in a far off land. Britta does a great job in creating a visualization of her experience, as well as Bhutan itself. The book may not be for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in Bhutan, I would recommend it. There is also a website for the book, and Britta, containing some great images, more information on Britta, a sample chapter from the book and more information on the religion and culture of Bhutan as well as maps and links:

Bottom Line:
…for any reader interested in Bhutan, especially relative to the books on the subject that are out there right now: Recommended to Highly Recommended

…for those interested in travel memoirs or the Himalaya region, but not particular to Bhutan itself: Recommended, with the knowledge that there are a lot of choices out there.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

Book Review: Little Princes

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise To Bring Home The Lost Children Of Nepal
by: Conor Grennan

     One man’s promise. One man’s realization. One man’s inspiration. One man’s calling. There are many things you can call this book and many things you can call this man Conor Grennan. Inspirational would definitely be one of them.

     Conor, now 29, starts off in Prague, leaving his day job of eight years for a year of travel around the world, starting with a three-month volunteering position in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, which he approaches with some humorous trepidation and a bit of “doing it for the wrong reason” kind of outlook. What, and who, he encounters at the Little Princes Home changes his life forever. Conor describes his first encounters here in a “hilarious antics kind of tale” and slowly unfolds it into a heart warming, engaging and emotional story of his experience at Little Princes and the children he meets there. The first thirty or so pages maybe the best “introduction” to a book I’ve ever read.

     For those not familiar with Nepal – at this time, around 2006, Nepal was in the midst of a civil war. Many of the children at this home, as well as plenty of other homes around the Kathmandu Valley, were not only orphans, but were caught up in child trafficking, which is extremely prevalent in Nepal, at this time, as well as today. Children are taken from their villages and parents at a very young age, with the promise of a good education, being taken care of, and the promise of a good future. The civil war only expanded the trafficking, as people and villages on the outskirts and more rural areas of the country became poorer. Parents who couldn’t feed their families thought they were doing the best thing they could for their children. Giving their children to the traffickers never to hear  from them or see them again.

     As Conor works the three months at Little Princes he slowly weaves an engaging tale through and about the children there, as well as Kathmandu, slowly transforming from scared and confused to confident and fatherly. He animatedly describes the children and their antics, connecting names and personalities throughout the book, bringing the children to life through his light-hearted writing style. At the end of his volunteer stint, Conor travels the rest of his journey throughout the world, to end up back home in New Jersey. Not for long though, as promises he made pull him back to Nepal.

     This time with a true purpose. Conor starts his own children’s home in Kathmandu, not only rescuing, watching and protecting children, but setting off throughout the mountains of Western Nepal to find the families of these children. An animated tale of adventure and frustration ensues, until Conor makes it back to Kathmandu. At this point, with the help of Farid, his partner, and many others, Conor realizes not only the dream of the children, but his own. Children see pictures of their parents that they thought were dead, families start calling, showing up in Kathmandu, and Conor’s dreams of reuniting the children becomes reality …but not without its problems, of course.

     A heart warming story, sometimes hilarious and funny, other times heart wrenching and tragic. A very well written story of the children of Nepal, as well as one man’s realization of a dream to help those children that helped him form that dream. Throughout, Conor writes in a lighthearted style which really lets this book and story shine through. A truly inspirational tale of what can be done if one only tries. If you’re at all interested in Nepal, this could be the best book I have ever read about the country. If you’re at all interested in child trafficking, what you can do to help stop it, what it entails and why it happens, again, highly recommended. If you know nothing about Nepal, or any issues in the country, but like travel memoirs, highly recommended.

Bottom Line:
…For any reader the least bit interested: Highly Recommended – This was a great book.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

PS: Even if you don’t want to buy the book, aren’t sure, or looking for another, or more opinions, click the link above to see 52 more reviews (at this point). Not one below four stars, and most five-star, plus an article by the author.

Book Review: Lonely Planet Afghanistan

     Ok. Before I even get started on this one I wanna say that I did go to Afghanistan in July, 2009, and I did read this book beforehand and during my stay there. I’m the “adventurous” type and went simply for a holiday. Not as part of an NGO or military or work or anything like that. Just for the fun of it I guess you would say. From my personal experience I can say, adamantly, DO NOT USE THIS AS A GUIDEBOOK along the lines of where to stay, visit, eat or anything else like that. This is one guidebook that can get you killed.

     The 1st edition, published in 2007. I’m not sure this was a wise decision by Lonely Planet. Actually, what I should say, is this was published to make money and that is it. There is no way anyone can publish a book on a country like Afghanistan and even slightly think that it will help their readers with lodging and visiting decisions. The book was probably outdated a few months before the publishing date…

     Take everything in this book with a grain of salt. It’s a fast moving country and to try to list “tourist” sites, places to stay, and places to eat could be potentially deadly. Good background info read before you go, definitely, but used as a “guide” …good luck.

     Case in point: I originally was going to stay at a highly recommended hotel in the book. I got there, Kabul that is, walked out of the airport and, talking to the mercs there, found out that the manager of that particular hotel was killed a few months earlier. …in the lobby of the hotel. Shot right behind the front desk. The mercs were really adamant about not staying there as the hotel was now compromised and an extremely dangerous place to stay. They gave me about a 75% chance of being kidnapped. Hmm. LP gave it a highly rated…

     Now, it’s not all bad. If your thinking of going than I would definitely recommend this as a good, comprehensive background and general overview type read of the country. In that sense one of the more recent out there. Written and published in the easy and eye pleasing Lonely Planet style, I would even say it’s worth the money if you’re at all interested in the country. I even learned a few important phrases before I went. CBIED, DBIED, DCIED …and things like that. The authors do have multiple “warnings” about information in the book also, so hats off to them there. Maybe even one of the more interesting lonely Planet’s I’ve read. So, in the historical and background context of the book, I would definitely give it a highly recommended.

     As a guidebook though, not recommended at all. If you are going though, and don’t feel like spending the money, I left mine in the library of the Serena Kabul. Really didn’t wanna part with it, but didn’t wanna carry it around for the next two months either.

Bottom Line:
…as a Background Read: Highly Recommended
…as a Guidebook: Potentially Deadly

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John